Mitch McConnell's will to win, developed at an early age, fell short when as president of the Student Bar Association at the University of Kentucky law school he failed in his effort to institute a student honor code. It was a major defeat in his early political life. "I laid my prestige on the line and lost," says McConnell, sitting cross-legged under a chandelier in the Republican leadership office, shortly after debating a spending bill on the Senate floor. "It's an example of a leader getting out in front of his constituents too far and not bringing them along." The lesson was learned: "You can't lead if you don't have any followers."
Whether voters or other senators, the new minority leader has succeeded in amassing followers--and a lot of political cash, reportedly some $220 million over his Senate career. Together these have been key to his success, both in building up the Republican party in Kentucky, and now in holding the Republican caucus together when it counts--as when the Republicans stopped a vote on a Democratic antiwar resolution in February.
A masterful strategist, McConnell doesn't rely on charisma or good looks. He speaks in a subdued voice and his handshake isn't the firmest. Nor does he cultivate the tough guy image of a Lyndon Johnson or Tom DeLay. Republican colleagues describe him as a good listener and consensus builder, both in the role of Senate majority whip from 2003 to 2007 and now as minority leader.
"He's long headed," said Utah conservative Bob Bennett. "A charismatic leader is like someone in the movies who bursts on to the scene and in the next reel he's in charge. [McConnell's] not cut out for the movies. He thinks four or five or six moves ahead and takes that first step to set up the sixth move."
Republican caucus meetings are much briefer under McConnell than they were under Bill Frist and Trent Lott, Bennett said, as McConnell tends to cut to the heart of a matter. Gordon Smith of Oregon--a moderate who's been on the opposite side of an issue from McConnell, having joined Chuck Hagel in siding with Democrats on a timeline for leaving Iraq--attests the leader is a good whip on almost every occasion.
"He understands that each state is different and the needs of the folks there are different, and at the end of the day he gets the numbers to win," said Smith, who nominated McConnell for the leadership role.
In his nomination speech, Smith talked about McConnell's drive to overcome obstacles going back to a childhood battle with polio. At the age of two, he was treated at the clinic in Warm Springs, Georgia, founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt. His earliest memory is of his last visit there.
When he was released, he could walk, but doctors feared that putting pressure on the left leg would cause abnormal growth, so they instructed his mother to keep him off his feet until he was four, while she administered physical therapy three times a day.
"She must have watched me like a hawk--all day, every day," McConnell reflects. "There have been a lot of things written about how formative the first five years in life are. I've always felt that experience probably had a big impact on my feeling, which is that only those people in life are defeated who give up."
McConnell would eventually become student body president at the University of Louisville, then student bar president at the University of Kentucky law school--ending up nicely positioned to curry favor with both Cardinal and Wildcat fans in his sports heavy state.
After interning for his hero, Kentucky senator John Sherman Cooper--an experience that crystallized his own ambition to serve in the Senate--and serving in the Ford Justice Department, McConnell went home and got himself elected Jefferson County judge-executive. At the time, it was the highest political office in Louisville, the only truly liberal part of Kentucky.
He served in the post from 1978 through 1984, when he entered a long-shot contest against popular Democratic senator Dee Huddleston. He released the famous "Where's Dee?" ad featuring a pack of bloodhounds hunting for the incumbent, known for missing votes. McConnell was the only Republican in the country that year to beat an incumbent Democratic senator (by a hair), in part because Ronald Reagan carried Kentucky by 21 points.
But Kentucky was still a Democratic state: The governor, both houses of the legislature, five of seven U.S. House members, and the senior senator were all Democrats and had been for over two decades. McConnell had to be clever.
It was in 1994, when Rep. William Natcher, beloved elder statesman and a Democrat, died, that McConnell showed what he could do. Two unknowns were battling in a special election, and McConnell was determined to make the race a referendum on President Clinton. This was the impetus for an ad that showed Democratic candidate Joe Prather's face morphing into Clinton's face. His opponent, an unknown Christian book store owner named Ron Lewis, pulled off what was called a miracle in the predominantly Democratic but socially conservative district.
McConnell went on to help get Jim Bunning elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998. The next year, he invited a Democratic state senator to his living room and persuaded him to switch parties, thus shifting the majority in one house of the legislature. Perhaps his crowning achievement as a kingmaker came in 2003 when his handpicked candidate, congressman Ernie Fletcher, became the first Republican to win a Kentucky governor's race since 1967.
"He single-handedly built the contemporary Republican party" in Kentucky, says Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, who notes he disagrees with the senator on virtually everything. "He brought the party together from its factions and splits by using leverage from his fundraising. He gains coordination and cooperation by using money to buy things."
Many Kentucky Democrats view McConnell as an old style machine pol driven by money and special interests and responsible for the worst attack ads, both in his own campaigns and in those he controls like a puppet master.
But McConnell is proud to be a money man, once called the "Darth Vader" of campaign finance reform. He blocked the McCain-Feingold bill for nearly a decade before it was finally enacted. He argued, more articulately than anyone, that in politics money is speech. Though he lost the lawsuit to overturn the law in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court is now ready to take another look at campaign rules in a Wisconsin case, and McConnell expects to take a leading role in the matter. (Incidentally, despite their disagreement on this issue, he describes his relationship with Arizona senator John McCain as "excellent.")
As for the charge about negative campaigns, McConnell's attack ads may be no nastier than average, just more effective because they're funny. The 1984 hounds were memorable, as was a 1996 ad that showed a flock of sheep, with the warning "Don't be Be-sheared," a reference to his Democratic opponent Steve Beshear's support for tax increases.
McConnell compensates for his lack of charisma with wit, usually delivering the best lines at Kentucky's annual Fancy Farm picnic, a raucous political event filled with fiery speeches, heckling crowds, and assorted gimmicks. He won his seat by landslides in 1996 and 2002.
Now, though, Democrats are hoping the national mood could make McConnell vulnerable. A lefty antiwar group, Americans United for Change, announced spending $200,000 for ads starting in late March attacking McConnell's support for Bush and the war.
Critics also lampoon McConnell for having his name on no major piece of legislation, though they ignore his co-authorship with Chris Dodd of the Help America Vote Act. But McConnell has said he's just as happy to block bad legislation as to sponsor good--as befits a conservative lawmaker and, now, minority leader.
As leader, McConnell said his top priorities would be Social Security reform and comprehensive immigration reform. He has high hopes that the Democratic majority will be receptive.
"Some issues just lend themselves to being handled by divided government," he said, citing President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill's rescue of Social Security, and President Clinton and the Republican Congress's welfare reform in the 1990s. "The perfect time to tackle these two big issues in the country is right now."
Immigration will be easier, he said. But Social Security reform--which almost no Democrats supported in 2005--could be a tough sell. McConnell intends to bring people along by appealing to their political self-interest.
"Why in the world would the Democrats do it?" he asked of Social Security reform. "I'll tell you why they ought to do it: Two years from now they hope they have the White House, and they hope they still have the Senate and the House. If they do, the problems will be two years worse, and they will have the same amount of Republican cooperation as we did Democratic cooperation."
Fred Lucas is a reporter for Cybercast News Service.